November/December 2019 Issue
October 19, 2019

Students take the lead: Rethinking parent-teacher conferences

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: Teacher Gabby Panganiban, a member of the Troy TA; fifth grader Queen Daniels and her mother, also named Queen, show what a student-led parent-teacher conference looks like. Troy is among a growing number of districts attempting unique approaches to improve family engagement. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

In a move to boost family engagement and student responsibility, the Troy Teachers Association is one of several local unions around the state experimenting with student-led conferences. Rather than the traditional parent-teacher conference, the student takes center stage — with the teacher providing support as needed.

It feels more like a “show and tell” presentation than a student progress meeting.

“It’s a big change,” said Ann Marie Jabour, a teacher at Troy’s School 2. “After 30 years of teaching, letting go of the control can be difficult — but the power in the student-led conference is incredible.”

“It’s nice to hear directly from your child, to see what school is like from her point of view,” said Queen Daniels, a fifth-grade parent and teaching assistant at the school. “I especially like how she sets clear goals and we talk about what she needs to work on.”

With training from NYSUT’s Research and Educational Services Department and a family engagement grant from the National Education Association, Troy teachers piloted the project on a voluntary basis starting with just a few students in each class. This year teachers will be doing it with their whole class.

“We learned it’s important that teachers are given enough time to prepare and practice with the kids,” Jabour said. It’s also helpful to have a uniform conference agenda and reflection sheet, plus a clear sense of what kind of student work samples should be included.

While formats can vary based on grade level and local needs, Troy’s student-led conferences look like this: Students follow a set agenda, sharing work samples and appropriate test information. They talk about their favorite subjects and areas where they may be weak. They also discuss any behavior or attitude issues — both positive and negative.

Students show family members items such as “exit tickets” which sum up what they learned in class or “sprints,” where they work to improve fluency with math activities like multiplication. In the end, the students wrap up with goal-setting and specifically detail what family members might be able to do at home to help them. Parents are given a chance to ask questions.

“I’ve been quite impressed with how students have handled themselves,” Jabour said. “They added important information (about their learning) during their conference. That helped us know we’re headed in the right direction.”

“The parents have been really receptive,” said Troy TA’s Shannon Comparetta. “You see a sense of pride from the child and a feeling that the student is taking ownership for their learning.”

Teachers agreed it can be a learning experience watching students interact with family members.

Comparetta noted the student-led format worked out well for a Spanish-speaking family, where the child essentially served as a translator.

“This program has been a wonderful and enlightening experience for our students and their families,” said Seth Cohen, the past Troy TA president who worked with NYSUT to get the program to School 2. “It not only showcases the student’s academic skills but gives them a chance to build some soft skills of communication. Our district’s motto is ‘Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Leaders’ and this program is a fundamental testament to putting that into action.”

The student-led conferences are among several high-impact family engagement strategies linked to student learning that are being encouraged under the NYSUT program.

Massena Federation of Teachers, for example, has started family home visits to build strong family-school connections, and the Solvay TA has implemented a family-friendly approach to setting learning goals and data sharing. Saranac Lake Central Schools TA is launching student-led conferences this school year.

“The goal is to give local unions and members the tools they need to improve student learning and build collaborative relationships among educators, families and community members,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. “We want to encourage partnerships where power and responsibility are shared.”

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